Freshman Focus

Freshman Focus: Malik Zaire

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Arriving on campus, it was tough to call Malik Zaire the quarterback of tomorrow. It was more like the day after tomorrow. But with a depth chart that saw the departure of Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel, and will say goodbye to Tommy Rees and potentially Andrew Hendrix after this season, Zaire’s arrival feels almost imminent.

Quickly ascending to the third string without taking a snap, Zaire still did plenty of things impressively during his 15 spring practices, leaving the coaching staff confident that their hand-picked recruit would be a great fit for the Irish offense in due time. But Zaire might have to be more than that, with no margin for error available behind Rees.

Once a guy that looked like he had all the time in the world to develop, Zaire enters camp hoping to fight for the backup job with Hendrix, quite a different place than most expected just a few months ago.

Let’s take a closer look at Malik Zaire.

RECRUITING PEDIGREE

Zaire was an Elite 11 quarterback, nearly winning the MVP of the competition the summer before his senior season. While his junior numbers weren’t overly impressive, Zaire put on a show his final season, as runner-up for Mr. Football in Ohio and the D-III Southwest District Offensive Player of the Year.

Zaire was a consensus four-star prospect and Rivals listed him as the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the country, as well as a top 150 player.

With offers from Alabama, Arizona, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, Zaire, while undersized, has the offer list of an elite prospect. He’ll immediately upgrade the athleticism at the position.

EARLY PLAYING TIME OPPORTUNITIES

When Zaire enrolled, it looked like he wouldn’t be ready to see action until at least 2016, when Everett Golson played out his four seasons as a starter. But with Golson’s academic exile, and Kiel’s transfer, Zaire might not even wear what looked like the surest redshirt in the class.

If all goes to this staff’s wishes, Zaire stays off the field this season and retains a year of eligibility. But that all goes out the window if Tommy Rees goes down, as it’s far from certain that Andrew Hendrix can take over this offense and be productive if needed.

With a team expected to have a fierce defense and an offense with skill players capable of surprising, turning over the reins of the offense to an untested freshman isn’t ideal. (In fact, it looks a lot like what happened in 2010, when Rees became the starting QB down the stretch by default.)

But after one crazy offseason, that’s Zaire’s new reality, and he’ll prepare as if he’s going to see the field in September.

PROJECTING THE FUTURE

It’s hard to see what happens with Zaire without knowing what will happen to Golson. There are just too many scenarios. Does a good season by Zaire make Hendrix walk after this season, even with a fifth year? Will it be an open competition when Golson comes back? What if Golson doesn’t come back?

All the different permutations aside, this coaching staff believes in Zaire’s ability, regardless of the players in front of him. Zaire’s jump start in the program gave Brian Kelly the belief that he had a quarterback that was capable of leading this program.

“I think what I loved about Malik is when he came up here last spring, he sat in our quarterback meeting room, and in that meeting room you’ve got some really good quarterbacks.  When he left that meeting, he made it clear to me that this was the place he wanted to be,” Kelly recalled on Signing Day.

“He loved the environment, he loved the coaching, he loved the opportunity to come in and run the offense, and that’s looking at great competition and saying, I don’t care about that, I’m going to come to Notre Dame because it’s the right place for me academically, and it’s the right place for me because I’m going to be the starter here at Notre Dame, and we love those kind of guys that have that attitude.”

It’s too hard to predict what will happen as the quarterback depth chart reshuffles itself. But it’s a fair bet to think that by the time his career at Notre Dame is over, Zaire will have made an impact.

Freshman Focus: Durham Smythe

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It’s not often Notre Dame gets in late on a recruit committed to Texas and ends up getting him to sign with the Irish. But that’s exactly what happened with tight end Durham Smythe, with the Texas native walking away from his commitment to Mack Brown and the Longhorns in favor of Brian Kelly’s tight end friendly scheme.

With the Irish already having Mike Heuerman in the recruiting class, Smythe, who committed to Texas back in March but decommitted in December, looks more like a perk of an undefeated regular season than a must have. But with the depth chart veteran heavy and the Irish offense constantly evolving, accepting the commitment of a lifelong Irish fan — and an excellent pass catching tight end — made too much sense.

Let’s take a closer look at Durham Smythe.

RECRUITING PEDIGREE

There’s some variance between recruiting services, with Rivals viewing Smythe as a three-star prospect while 247 has him in their top 250. But with a (one-time) Texas commitment, and offers from Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Miami, Oregon and Stanford, it’s hard to see the 6-foot-5, 240-pound tight end as anything but an elite prospect.

Kelly talked about what made Smythe such an attractive prospect.

“He hasn’t even tapped his potential at 6’5″, 230, and he’s 230 right now,” Kelly said on Signing Day. “He’s going to be obviously a big, physical player for us but has the soft hands and the ability to get out and run routes. We’re excited about Durham coming in later in the process, but getting a chance to meet his family and spending time, it’s a great fit.”

After stepping away from his commitment to Texas in December, Smythe took an official visit in early January to Stanford before visiting South Bend less than two weeks before Signing Day. He left campus committed to the Irish.

EARLY PLAYING TIME OPPORTUNITIES

Irish fans didn’t have months to explore Smythe and what he brings to the Irish offense. But looking at the depth chart, moving ahead of three veterans — Alex Welch, Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack, might be too much to ask of a freshman.

That said, there’s a multiplicity to the Irish offense, and nobody on the current depth chart has shown themselves to be an every down lock like Tyler Eifert or Kyle Rudolph had. Both Heuerman and Smythe need to do some growing into their frames, but each seem to be a capable receiver first, with the ability to battle in the trenches coming after some time in the weight room.

Still, saving a year of eligibility wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, especially with Welch, Koyack and Niklas all potentially exiting in the same year.

PROJECTING THE FUTURE

Again, without a long look at Smythe, we won’t truly know what the Irish have until we’ve seen him work with the team. But there’s every reason to be excited about a kid with elite recruiting offers and size and hands you just can’t teach.

As we look at the way the depth chart plays out, many expect Alex Welch to come back strong after a knee injury ended his 2012 during the preseason. The staff hasn’t lost any belief in Ben Koyack after an up and down sophomore season, and Troy Niklas looks like he’ll be a standout player in his final two seasons of eligibility.

That said, there’s room for everyone in this offense, with last season showing the multiple ways tight ends can be used. During spring, we saw the Z (slot) receiver position manned by a tight end, and there’s reason to believe that two and three tight ends could be on the field at the same time, making for some difficult run-pass conflicts for opposing defenses.

The staff loves Smythe’s ability to catch the football, and with the size he walks onto campus with, there’s every reason to believe he’ll find a way into this offense. When is the big question.

 

Freshman Focus: Jaylon Smith

Indianapolis Star
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The crown jewel of the Irish recruiting class, Jaylon Smith begins his Notre Dame career as the school’s highest ranked defensive prospect in the modern recruiting era. The top high school linebacker in the country, Smith is an all-everything recruit, a headliner on every All-American team, and a prospect coveted by schools coast to coast.

After guiding his Bishop Luers high school team to four straight state titles, Smith exits his Indiana high school football career one of the most decorated players the state has ever seen. Starring as both a running back and linebacker, Smith will now focus on playing defense for the Irish, where his elite athletic ability and explosiveness give Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco a defender unlike any they’ve previously had. While it’s a big jump from small-school Indiana football, Smith walks onto campus expected to be one of the future stars of college football, a hype that often times is tough to match.

Let’s take a closer look at Jaylon Smith.

RECRUITING PEDIGREE

A consensus top-five player in the country, Smith was universally viewed as the top outside linebacker in the country. With offers from just about every elite program in the country, Smith picked Notre Dame over Ohio State, where his brother plays for Urban Meyer.

The Butkus Award winner at the high school level, Smith was a Parade All-American, first team USA Today All-American, and Indiana’s Mr. Football. He was team captain for the West squad at the US Army All-American Bowl. Put simply, there’s no better prospect on paper than Smith.

EARLY PLAYING TIME OPPORTUNITIES

Expect to see Smith on the field early and often. Where might be the only real question, with Danny Spond firmly entrenched at the Dog linebacker position and Prince Shembo one of the top Cat linebackers in the country. That said, Smith brings something to the outside linebacker depth chart that nobody else can – an elite athletic profile that isn’t often seen.

On the summer camp circuit, Smith hopped from position to position, dominating drills as a wide receiver, running back, defensive end, linebacker or cover corner. While he’ll need to add bulk and get used to the physicality demanded in Diaco’s defense, he’s the type of athlete that the coaching staff will find a way to get on the field.

With the Irish finally having the personnel to utilize nickel and dime packages, expect Smith to be featured in specialty groupings, either using his speed in coverage or coming off the edge as a pass rusher.

PROJECTING THE FUTURE

The sky is the limit for Smith. Athletically, he has few equals. And as the Irish’s standout ’13 recruiting class was coming together, Smith showed himself to be the type of leader that gets Kelly and his staff more than excited.

“The thing that’s most impressive is the character of this young man and his energy,” Kelly said of Smith on Signing Day. “He just has it. When he walks into a room, the room kind of lightens up, and that’s the kind of personality that he is, and he is one tough football player, as well.”

Smith will grow into that leadership role, with the Irish filled with quality upperclassmen ready to handle those responsibilities. The same can be said for his role on the field. With Spond entering his senior season, there’s no need to force Smith to be the type of every down player you’d expect out of a recruit in a similar stratosphere. But finding where to play Smith will be the biggest challenge for this staff, and will likely be dictated by Smith’s development in the weight room.

Right now, you could make an argument for Smith playing a handful of different positions on both sides of the ball. But after watching Anthony Barr turn into one of the most dangerous edge players in the game, you can expect to see Smith develop in the same way. And that should have Irish fans very excited.

 

Freshman Focus: Isaac Rochell

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Incoming defensive lineman Isaac Rochell is a lot of things on the football field. But what might make him one of the more interesting recruits in this class is what he isn’t: Drama.

Rochell’s recruitment was one of the quietest for a high profile player in recent memory. In an era where just about every elite defensive lineman turns into a recruiting battle until the end, Rochell’s eventual signing with the Irish had so few twists and turns that most Irish fans might be taking Rochell for granted.

While thousands of words and millions of worries were dedicated to Eddie Vanderdoes, Rochell will walk onto campus as one of the top prospects in the country along the defensive line that nobody seems to be talking about. He’s a big, strong and powerful defensive lineman playing a position that the Irish need to replenish, and is another recruiting victory that Brian Kelly and staff had over SEC powers, with the help of young assistant Scott Booker.

Let’s take a closer look at Isaac Rochell.

RECRUITING PEDIGREE

In just about every other recruiting class, Rochell is the type of guy that would have Irish fans jumping for joy. An elite defensive line recruit with offers from Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Michigan and a few dozen other programs, Rochelle has the type of upside that has Kelly and his coaching staff very excited.

“He’s going to play on the defensive line, and he’s going to impact this program,” Kelly said. “I think he’s got a huge upside, and we’re really excited about getting a player of this caliber here to Notre Dame.”

Rochelle was a consensus Top 125 player across the board for just about every recruiting service.

EARLY PLAYING TIME OPPORTUNITIES

With the injury to Chase Hounshell and the departure of Eddie Vanderdoes, Rochell has the chance to make an early dent in the depth chart. Looking at this season, behind the locked in starting three of Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Sheldon Day, where Rochell slots in among guys like Tony Springmann, Justin Utupo and Jarron Jones will be interesting to watch.

While we’ve heard nice things about fifth year player Tyler Stockton, he might be a rotational player at the nose with Kona Schwenke. Likewise, a guy like Utuopo might have been just a flash in spring practice, but might never be heard from again. That said, expecting numbers out of Rochell that exceed what Day did last year as a true freshman is probably asking too much, especially considering Day had a spring semester to prepare him for college football.

Like the offensive line last season, the Irish defense up front might be caught in a talented-but-thin predicament and a talented guy like Rochell could be the beneficiary.

PROJECTING THE FUTURE

With an offer list like the one Rochell possesses and a size and skillset that this staff covets, it’s not hard to think big things are in Rochell’s future. (Tight end coach Scott Booker, who led the charge for Rochell, believes he’s athletic enough to play tight end for the Irish.) That said, the timing of Rochell’s breakthrough will likely correspond with the departure of Stephon Tuitt.

Still, the Irish depend on a solid rotation of players in the front seven to power the defense and a guy like Rochell might find his way into that rotation the day he steps foot on campus. After one or two seasons behind Tuitt, Rochell could work his way into becoming a two year starter — or three if he’s able to redshirt this season.

In a defense like the Irish’s, finding athletes like Rochell are essential to the overall health of the defense. With the chance to develop and learn behind one of the country’s elite defensive lines, Rochell should be a future staple of front sevens to come.

Freshman Focus: Corey Robinson

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More than a few eyebrows were raised when Notre Dame reached out to little known San Antonio wide receiver Corey Robinson. Playing in lower division Texas high school football and a relative newcomer to the game, Robinson pledged to the Irish with fans knowing nothing more than he was the string-bean shaped son of former NBA star David Robinson.

With recruiting boards scratching their heads to even find information on Robinson, the profile of a 6-foot-4 (and likely growing) wide receiver with elite genetics gave Irish fans some degree of certainty, along with Brian Kelly and his staff’s ability to mine for diamonds. Then, Robinson’s national profile slowly began to emerge. At the Army All-American game, the San Antonio native showed himself to belong with some of the countries finest players.

Yet nothing was more important to Robinson’s future than the spring semester he spent in South Bend. Learning on the fly, our glimpses of the young wide receiver weren’t of a Bambi learning how to play, but rather of a velcro-handed athlete that looks like he’ll be able to help the Irish sooner than even the most optimistic Irish fan even thought.

Let’s take a closer look at Corey Robinson.

RECRUITING PEDIGREE

Robinson isn’t on any recruiting services’ Top 250 list, and Notre Dame was his first major offer and the school that put him on the national radar. While it wasn’t enough to boost him into the Top 250, Rivals added a fourth star to Robinson’s name after his performance at the US Army All-American game, where he garnered almost all positive reviews.

In addition to the Irish, Robinson had scholarship offers from Navy, where his father starred as a basketball player, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina, and Wake Forest.

He committed to the Irish in March and enrolled early with fellow freshman James Onwualu, Steve Elmer, Malik Zaire, and Mike Heuerman in January.

EARLY PLAYING TIME OPPORTUNITIES

We’ve covered the deficiencies on the Irish depth chart at wide receiver, especially with the departures of Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson. Robinson quickly found his way during spring drills, and got to a point where Brian Kelly acknowledged a fall plan for the talented freshman, similar to the way the Irish used Chris Brown last season.

“He’ll be a role player, kind of like Chris Brown was,” Kelly said last spring. “Chris helped us win a game against Oklahoma. That’s how you have to look at Corey Robinson. No, he’s not a finished product yet. He’s got to get stronger. But he does have a skill set. When you throw that ball near him, he comes down with it. So I think there’s a place for him in our offense, but he won’t be a featured guy.”

Working to piece things together, expect Robinson to make his way into some red zone packages, an area the Irish offense needs to improve in, and a segment of the offense that would definitely benefit from the height and length Robinson provides. For a guy that provided one of the highlights of spring, the future could be sooner than later for the under-the-radar prospect.

PROJECTING THE FUTURE

Taking an educated guess as to what the future of Robinson’s playing career looks like is tough business. After all, who would have predicted his father would’ve grown nearly a foot before his final year year of high school and then sprouted to be a seven-footer after being just another 5-foot-9 high school junior?

Robinson is already a shade over 6-foot-4, and while not everybody gets a late growth spurt (I’m still waiting for mine), he’s definitely going to grow into his body, adding bulk to his frame and possibly an inch or two before he’s done in South Bend. That’s going to give the Irish a weapon they haven’t had under Brian Kelly and a guy that could be highly versatile.

Robinson will need to learn the nuances of the game, and he’ll need to continue to improve his quickness and speed, making sure he’s not pigeon-holed as just a jump ball threat. He’s a much smoother athlete than most expected and the term “catch radius” all but sprung into Irish fans lexicons after listening to the coaches rave about Robinson, so there’s reason to be excited.

A pure outside receiving threat on a roster filled with guys that can play both inside and out, Robinson will have a chance to make a name for himself by the time his career is over in South Bend.